Dystopias: Couldn’t We Have Just *One*?

Many years ago, at a family get together, one of my older brothers was leafing through a magazine.

“Says here that the three biggest male turn-offs for women are smoking, sweating, and being fat.”

He closes the magazine and puts it down.

“I could have lived with 2 out of 3.”

The two great 20th century dystopias – Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World – paint what seem to be very different pictures: In 1984, all but a very few live in a state of constant fear of a conscience-free elite. The rules are arbitrary yet must be enthusiastically embraced if you want to get along or even survive. This includes as a primary feature using language – Newspeak – that prevents all attempts to honestly address reality. Mere failure to use Newspeak is a Thoughtcrime in and of itself, subject to unlimited punishment.

Huxley’s future looks to be a paradise: everyone is healthy, attractive, gainfully employed – and can get all the sex they want whenever they want. Sure, some people have to do the dirty work, but they have been prepared from the mechanical womb to do their jobs without complaint. Nobody has to bother with raising children, and no one gets old – a result achieved by the expedient of simply dropping dead once they turn 60. Hey, small price to pay. No time alone, a place for everything and everything in its place. And all the sex you want. Marriage, natural birth, parenthood, and pregnancy are considered too obscene to be mentioned in casual conversation.

Those few who for whatever perverse reasons prefer family and independence – well, they are savages living out on the reservation. You can even visit them to gawk, if you want.

Did I mention all the recreational sex you could ever want?

I could have lived with 1 out of 2.

Per Orwell, we have an ever growing and essentially arbitrary list of approved and condemned words and phrases. People of color is in; colored people is out. Calling someone a man or a woman is fraught with risks – you could trigger some poor special butterfly’s carefully inculcated Pavlovian ‘take offense’ reaction. Personal responsibility is a shibboleth in polite company, worthy of air quotes and condemning the unwary user to be cast into the outer darkness with other double-plus-ungood-ists, while talking about the power dynamic is a signal that all is well and we need not fear the intrusion of reality into the conversation.

Sex is about the only sacred good left. To so much as suggest that anyone’s sexual desires are anything other than holy is to invite the most violent personal condemnations. And now that the ‘right to die’ has breached the social suicide barriers, all that is left to ensuring universal health and beauty and goodness is to make clear that there are many people who, due to age or other infirmities (such as not seeing the glorious goodness of euthanasia) may not recognize that they want to die – they are clearly incapable of the choice – so we’ll make it for them, for their own good.

The only 20th century dystopia we seemed to have dodged is the post-nuclear war scenario. I’m grateful for that, at least.

More Unintended Consequences: CEO Pay

From American Enterprise Institute via Isegoria via a William Briggs tweet (phew!). Not sure I buy that this is the complete story, but it seems to me that, given human nature – especially of the board of directors who would be accusing themselves of incompetence if they were to admit their CEO, the guy they picked to lead the company, was not at least average – that this accounts for much of the boom in CEO salaries.

Sometimes, true explanations are just this petty and stupid.

On multiple occasions the SEC [Securities and Exchange Commission] amended its rules to increase the disclosure of compensation data and to force boards to explain their rationale for the amounts. That, combined with the influence of the arbiters of corporate governance, created an inviolable requirement for compensation committees to be advised by consultants. A perfect recipe for increasing compensation.

Let me explain in my own case. I asked only that I be paid at market for my position and performance, and that my compensation be very heavily weighted to performance. Henceforth, I could rely on our consultants to provide essentially perfect market data on comparative compensation, accompanied by recommendations appropriate in light thereof, and there was really no need for much discussion or worry as long as our company was successful.

You can guess how it works. No board that isn’t about to fire its CEO really wants to admit that their CEO is a less-than-average performer by paying him or her less than average. But if the lowest-paid CEO’s are always being brought up to the average, then the average increases every year. Then for the high performers to be paid well, their compensation needs to be increased, but that raises the average… and so on every year. And the compensation committee and the board always have this market data before them, the recommendations of their consultants and “best practices” to adhere to. These influences are not easily resisted. You see the result.

Like many regulatory unintended consequences, it’s hard for me to see an easy way back. But it’s more than an academic question if you are a director serving on a compensation committee.

Read it all at the various sites linked above.

One of the most common shortcomings of modern discussions is the inability of many people to imagine themselves in the positions of those they want to judge. The most egregious example is National Socialism – those guys were just evil, not at all like us. Unlike the evil and twisted German professional classes in which Nazism flourished – you know, lawyers, doctors, teachers, bureaucrats –  our professional classes are nothing but sweetness and light, and would never fall to the peer pressure and demagoguery that those evil Germans fell for.

Right. We don’t have to worry about falling for demagoguery and peer pressure because we’re fundamentally better people than your typical 1930s German dentist. I wish I were kidding, and that people don’t actually think this way…

Here, a much less inflammatory example: if we somehow found ourselves in a nice cushy Board of Director’s job, we would never fall for all this gotta pay our CEO at least average CEO pay pressure, because enlightened! Instead, we’d resign! Or fight for a lower salary, then watch our CEO quit for a better-paying job, and then have to hire somebody else – at above average pay, or else we’re admitting we can’t find an above-average candidate….

Perspective: Families

Our age, the final (one hopes) expression of the Enlightenment, is addicted to the idea of novelty, in the sense that all new ideas are presumed to be good ideas.  The necessary corollary is that old ideas, even those that have existed for thousands of years across hundreds of different cultures and through countless political and social upheavals, are bad if they contradict what is understood to be a new idea.

This is what Progress means to the modern mind: the overthrow of established ideas and the practices those ideas engender in favor of new ideas. We don’t know, yet, what practices the new ideas will engender, because that takes time. We are always to plunge ahead, under the tacit assumption that whatever new practices arise from new ideas will necessarily be good.

This state of affairs, this seemingly eternal state of crisis and brouhaha wherein no old idea is ever considered good and settled, flows both from and toward a certain constellation of issues:

– The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Is New Idea A better than Old Idea B? All moderns in every case I’ve ever come across seem to believe that the goodness of New Idea A is luminous, that only a fool or a blind man or, most especially, someone motivated by evil would dispute it. But if it is indeed a new idea, then it has no track record – there’s no pudding. The only way to find out definitively is to see what practices idea A results in.

So, for example, there are old Christian practices around sexual propriety, whereby men are to be respectful and protective of women, and women are to be supportive and deferential to men and where marriages are sacred and permanent. The old idea upon which these practices were built is that people – men, women and children, the rich and the poor, the strong and the weak – on the one hand, exist for their own sake – we are not means to an end – and on the other, exist to love, honor and serve our Creator.

Since God is Our Father, the old idea goes, a human family is a reflection, however dim and imperfect, of the Divine Love. The family shows us how we are to treat each other (as brothers and sisters). The family is the fundamental ordering principle of a good society.

Here we need not consider if this idea of the person being of infinite worth regardless of their sex or status in life is true or not, or if God is a Father or even exists, but merely note the historical fact that it was held as true by great swaths of peoples across great areas of Europe and the New World for many centuries. It is a common theme throughout art and literature in the West, and had to be paid at least lip service by anyone hoping to rule. In practice, it meant that even a king was held to a standard, whereby he had no absolute right to the lives of his subjects and indeed no right to interfere in their family lives. Compare with, for example, the emperors and kings of the east, for whom their subjects were mere personal property. Continue reading “Perspective: Families”

Quick Book Reviews & Update

Took most of the month off, evidently, judging by the scarcity of posts. However, did read some books:

The Ballad of the White Horse, G K Chesterton. Excellent. It’s the first epic poem I think I’ve read since Virgil or Milton, maybe. Chesterton takes an historic event – the defeat of the Danes under Giuthram by King Alfred of Wessex in 878 – and makes it into a tale of the Christian soldier’s endless battles against paganism, even going so far as to have Alfred relate a vision of times where the pagans do not wage physical war, but rather seek by subterfuge and stealth to steal the land from Christians. In hands other than Chesterton’s, this could get silly, but GKC pulls it off with his iusual aplomb.

Read it out loud, to the kids if you have any handy. This really should be the official poem of the Sad Puppies.

The Time Machine, by H G Wells. Classic. Wells has a predictably grim view of humanity. He’s one of those odd charming Englishmen who behaves himself out of culture and habit, even if his philosophy provides no reason to do so. And he doesn’t lose sight of his audience, and writes in a way that a turn of the last century English reader will like. Only one comment on the story itself: Morlocks are almost charming as Wells paints them – weird, oddly gentle cannibals. Several times, they had the opportunity to just kill him, but instead they seem to more or less grope him so that he escapes when outnumbered a hundred to one. As bad guys, the barely work. I’m guessing this is because Wells’ sympathies really are with them rather than the Eloi – they are, upon his protagonist’s theory, the descendents of the noble working classes, while the Eloi are degenerate bourgeois of some sort.  Eat the rich, after all.

The War of the Worlds, by H G Wells. Another classic. Wells again portrays most people as being basically animals hiding behind a thin veneer of civilization, The parson he gets stuck with is particularly spineless and mindless. Go figure. I was surprised later in the book when a navy ship took a daring and ultimately suicidal run at the Martians – that was what I, and I’d bet all his readers, would expect from British military. But mostly it’s just people hunted like rabbits and about as daring.

The imagination and imagery of the story are striking and very good, and would no doubt have been even better were I more familiar with the English countryside around London. The book ends on an almost upbeat note, introducing the ideas that humanity would become united by the notion of alien intelligences, and that technology would take a huge leap forward by just examining the Martian wreckage (that was the first thing that went through my mind at the end of Independence Day – what glorious wreckage to reverse engineer!) Yet earth cannot be assured that the Martians will not try it again, so there is a bit of a pall on things. Well, that and thousands dead and London destroyed…

Almost done with Firestar by Michael Flynn, and just used a birthday present Amazon card to order the sequel Roguestar and to order Architect of Eons by John C Wright.  Soooo, got my reading for the next couple weeks all lined up.

And Hegel and all those education history and biography books are calling me right there from the shelf….

Houses and Universities: Follow the Money

One problem among us voters is that we have difficult time grasping the concept that we can’t vote for what we’d like to have happen, but instead vote merely for people and measures that may or may not achieve what we’d like to have happen. We don’t get to vote for peace, for example – we just get to vote for people who’s idea of peace might be the Arab Spring and helping Iran get nuclear weapons, alienating allies and emboldening enemies. We don’t get to vote for jobs – we just get to vote for people whose fundamental economic theories are mid-19th century adolescent revenge fantasies dressed up like philosophy for Halloween – trick and treat, where the treat is everything you’ve got and the trick is burning down your village.

This muddle is exacerbated by the often not-so-subtle Marxism that has replaced thought in all of academia and much of real life. Under this theory, progress is inevitable, the result of the dialectic’s inexorable glorious synthesis of the ragged, unjust thesis and its groaning, tattered antithesis. The only question is: are you on the Right Side of History? Which, translated to English from Newspeak, means: do you chose the correct ends? This sort of non-thought has two consequences: first, the means are judged only by if they effect the ends; second, the only way the proper ends can fail to arrive (in a cloud of dialectic magic unicorn faerie-dust) is if Bad People – oppressors – are actively doing something to stop it. Not that they can stop it, really, because the brave new world is inevitable, but those bad-thinking Oppressor McOppressys out there sure make people on the Right Side of History mad!

It makes me a meanie that I care not so much about the nice sounding stated goals which are often completely noble and desirable, but care a lot about how those goals are to be achieved and – here’s where you’ll really make enemies – if the proposed methods are at all likely to get you there. The burning example these days seems to be minimum wage laws. Would I like everybody to live well? Sure! Would I like poor working people to make more money? Seems OK! So the only reason I can possibly have for suggesting an increase in minimum wages is not a good idea is that I’m a Hater! I love looking down on poor people, who are lazy bums!

Right? It can’t be that I take a larger, better informed picture of economics, wherein the apparent short-term gains of some people from an increase in their personal income is offset by a whole cascade of other, less beneficial events, which will result, eventually, in Bad Things for more people than are helped out. Or if I were to suggest that some jobs really might not be worth $15/hour – that’s not because I understand the economics from the point of view of the guy paying the $15/hour, but because I hate the guy who will, in theory, receive the $15/hour.

So, since I’m a hater anyway, might as well point out a couple other areas where good intentions coupled with economic ignorance produced unexpected (by the economically illiterate) results.  Continue reading “Houses and Universities: Follow the Money”

Update: Reading, Emotions, Life

So, a few weeks back I was reading Michael Flynn’s excellent Firestar, well past the midway point, and I had to stop for reasons that are not clear even to me. Maybe it’s the deep suspicion, based on Flynn’s previous books and a few broad hints in the text, that one or more beloved characters are going to get killed off. Sure, the central characters have to survive, at least some of them, because this is a series. Maybe nobody dies, dunno. Maybe this isn’t even the reason I stopped. But for whatever reason, I’ll have to finish it up in a bit, when things calm down.

Meanwhile, did read – for the first time, I’ll sheepishly admit – War of the Worlds and The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. They also were emotionally tough, although it is Wells’ grim view of humanity that makes them so. Even then, he understands his readers enough not to end the stories on utter downbeats. WotW is positively cheery, by the end.  They are also very short by modern novel standards.

Don’t know how I managed not to have read them in the past – I think we have more than one copy of them. But I’d rather think I skipped them than to think I’d read such memorable books and yet failed to remember them.

Also reading the Ballad of the White Horse, another work I’ve inexplicably failed to read by now. I’m thinking it should be the official epic poem of the Sad Puppies. I’m carefully searching for any references to cheese – nothing so for.

On the ‘Life’ side of the equation, if you are the praying type, please pray for my eldest sister, Annette, who is in the hospital after a series of strokes.

Plan to return to reporting on education history, skewering Science! ™, and reviewing books shortly.

In the News: GE, etc.

A while back, I wrote about one unintended consequence that causes a peculiar market distortion. In the news this week, we have another prime example, one that few people outside the industry will understand. Here’s the crux of the gist: GE to sell bulk of finance unit, return up to $90 billion to investors

(Reuters) – General Electric Co will shed most of its finance unit and return as much as $90 billion to shareholders as it becomes a “simpler” industrial business instead of an unwieldy hybrid of banking and manufacturing.

The company on Friday outlined a restructuring plan that includes buying back up to $50 billion of its shares, selling about $30 billion in real estate assets over the next two years and divesting more GE Capital operations. GE stock jumped 8.5 percent.

Now, for an inside baseball moment: What’s really going on here is that GE, over the decades, built up a large and highly profitable set of finance businesses. Many of them, probably a majority, were developed to help sell GE manufactured products, everything from locomotives and jet engines to MRIs. It’s just like when you go buy a car – the dealer doesn’t want to send you off to find financing, he wants to make sure you can get it right there before you change your mind. So, the car manufacturers provide financing in order to help the dealer move product.

So far, so good, and not very different than what lots of other manufacturing companies do. GE Finance has succeeded very well – too well, in fact. A couple decades ago, the success of the equipment leasing operations in structuring deals so that they were able to offset taxable income with depreciation allowances resulted in GE paying little if any taxes, which, while perfectly legal (and, frankly, good for the economy, as each of those leases represents equipment deployed someplace trying to make money), nonetheless offended the tender sensibilities of the mathematically soft-headed. So we got AMT – Alternative Minimum Tax – a patch sewn onto a kludge of a Rube Goldberg machine: the tax depreciation regulations. See the essay linked above for details, if you’ve got the stomach for them.

GE’s business model is quite hands-off for a conglomerate. The mother ship sets return goals, such as a 2% return on assets or such, and then lets the subsidiaries figure out how to do it. Fail, and they very unsentimentally cut the subsidiary loose by selling it to somebody else. Succeed, and management gets bonuses. This is a process they have perfected over decades, with the result that GE is consistently one of the most profitable companies in the world.

One oddity: they don’t limit what their subsidiaries do in order to make the required returns. Generally, conglomerates don’t really want their units competing against each other head on – seems inefficient, on the surface, at least. GE, on the other hand, says ‘have at ’em’. So a GE subsidiary can conceivably put another GE subsidiary out of business. Life is tough. Further, if a subsidiary sees a chance to expand outside its core business, they have the green light – just so long as they meet the return target.

Thus we arrive at the state we are today: GE’s financial arm had become the largest source of income for GE, but had also started to cause headaches for the mother ship. It had originally fallen under greater political scrutiny because of the ‘tax dodge’ of depreciation. Then, after the late economic unpleasantness, GE Finance got classified as a ‘too big to fail’ bank. Never mind that it had played a relatively minor role in the whole mortgage debacle, and has always been managed conservatively – because the subsidiaries had long expanded into financial realms other than just equipment finance, the unassailable logic of Barney Frank (he’s dead, no use assailing now. Oops – a reader corrects me – Mr. Frank is not dead. Somehow, I thought he was. My apologies, on the vanishingly slight chance he reads this.) as codified in the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 said that *consumers* needed to be protected from Wall Street – and that, because GE has a toe-hold in consumer finance and knows people on Wall Street, consumers need to be protected from GE as well.

Now, I have little sympathy for GE – they are ruthless company that lays people off at the drop of a hat. They play political hardball, they know the game. But they are not by any stretch a consumer bank. The vast bulk of their business is business to business – they finance equipment for other companies. But Dodd-Frank is requiring them to behave – and keep records, issue reports, file filings and follow processes – designed to protect *consumers* from shady dealings. It’s made life hard, expensive and less profitable for GE Finance – and the GE Mother Ship as well.

Thus, after assessing the fall out for a couple years, GE, in its typical ruthless manner, has decided to rid itself of these troublesome finance companies. Thousands of people will be fired. And – disclosure – many of these folks are among my very best customers.

Most of these people are highly trained finance professionals, so they will probably be all right eventually. What bugs me is the pointlessness of it all: no consumers are going to be ‘protected’ by this move, tens and maybe hundreds of millions will change hands just processing all these sales, and families and communities will be disrupted. But to oppose Dodd-Frank means you’re a meanie who wants big businesses to fleece consumers with impunity, right? Sheesh.

As to the stock price going up: duh. There’s going to be a massive influx of cash from the sales of the various finance subsidiaries, and GE plans to use much of it to buy back stock, goosing the earnings per outstanding shares. So, looks great! Now, after all the dust settles in a year or two – then what? GE will have sold off its most profitable businesses, and will be relying on manufacturing to close the gap.

How do you think that will work out? How has it typically worked out over the last few decades?

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And, finally, yes, this is a bit of a cheap shot, but very telling:

They could be fresh from the LA Religious Education Conference, or the Life Teen rock band at many local churches.